My best friend Nate turned thirty today.
Of course, I haven’t seen, him, spoken to him, received any correspondence from him, or even heard any news of him since sometime in early 1998.
Nate was born on 15 May 1976 in Würzburg, West Germany, where his father, an officer in the United States Air Force, was stationed at the time. They returned to the States two years later, and Nate grew up in the same small southern Minnesota town that saw my birth, and the birth of both my parents. We lived five miles out of town, but I spent a lot of afternoons at my maternal grandparents house, and Nate’s family lived just a block behind their back yard.
Our mothers knew each other slightly through church activities, but we met more or less by chance, as I was swept up in a small band of neighbourhood children for an afternoon of impromptu play. I was seven years old. Two years my senior, Nate was a bit unreal; I was in awe of being invited to play with this “older kid”.
The awe wore of, and before long we sought each other out to play: with plastic dinosaurs, with G.I. Joes, with wooden guns and our treasured camouflage hats. Nate lived at the growing edge of town, and there was almost always a house under construction; the resulting mounds of dirt provided a constantly-changing landscape for us to explore with our shared toys and linked imaginations.
And when he came out to our farm, our play had the whole countryside to stretch out in. We developed sweeping mythologies in which we played the heroes (of course) and we tramped the dark county roads long past our bedtimes, rescuing grateful maidens and thwarting international crime syndicates.
Then we moved away. I was nine years old, and I thought my world was ending. But we kept in touch, and when we did get together it was usually for a more extended period than when we had lived mere minutes apart. It became a tradition for him to spend a week with me each summer, and we packed a year’s worth of fun and adventure into those summer days; long afternoons of war games in the woods and riding our bikes to distant quarries to search for geological specimens, followed by long nights of swapping stories around our little campfire or sneaking out for long moonlit treks through a landscape filled with all the adventure and danger our teeming imaginations could provide.
As we grew older, Nate illuminated my home-schooled isolation with the benefits of his public education. He expanded my vocabulary, regaled me with ribald and salacious stories of his schoolmates, introduced me to the best of 90’s hair metal and a variety of comedians whose blue humour was probably largely lost on me.
Inevitably, we grew apart as we grew up. By the time he was nearing the end of high school, Nate no longer cared to spend hours in the wood role-playing with Matchbox cars as we had once done. The fact that I had spent the entire year preparing for his next visit, building a city out of field stones, digging a open-pit mine, and drafting a five-page plot outline for the storyline of our game was, in retrospect, probably a bit much for a debonair 17-year-old to get excited about.
He started college at a small state college less than an hour’s drive from us, so I thought we would see much more of each other. We visited a bit, but he was busy with school and life. One afternoon he drove up unexpectedly; his dorm had been evacuated by a bomb scare, so he had decided to drive up and see me. We went on a long walk along the country roads we had both come to know so well. I was making my plans to start my own college career the following year, plans which at that point were still entirely musical. I had shared with him some bit of writing I had done before we set off on our walk, and he seemed preoccupied with it as we talked of our plans and dreams. “You are a good writer,” he finally managed to say. “I don’t want to influence you or anything,” he went on, “but if you don’t do something with your writing, I’ll kill you.” He gave me a half-smile, behind which was an earnestness I was not expecting from him. “Not that I’m trying to influence you or anything,” he was quick to add.
I was flattered by the praise, and amused by his unexpected seriousness. I had never given a thought to pursuing any path that overtly involved writing. It was simply something I did, had always struggled with, but kept at, like a compulsion. But his words stirred the seed of truth that lay in my soul, and before long I knew that my music would be words.
The last time I saw Nate, he came to visit me at seminary. He had left college and was studying modelling in the Twin Cities, aspiring to be an actor and working night security somewhere. We caught up for a while in my room, then we went for a long walk around campus. He observed that we were studying for opposite professions: my path was one of meaning and integrity, while he was studying to be “professionally shallow.”
I never saw him again. We exchanged emails for a while, but I am not a reliable correspondent, and before much longer the address I had for him no longer worked. Occasional late-night Google searches have failed to bring me any news of his life. About three and a half years ago, in the midst of the wedding preparations, I very much wanted to invite my old friend to share with me one of the happiest days of my life. I wrote a letter to his mother, asking her to either send me Nate’s current address or pass mine along to him. I received no reply from either her or him.
I don’t know where you are now, Nate, or what you are doing. I trust you have found your path, and are making your mark. You will probably never read this, because for all the heralded smallness of this world, there is plenty of room in it for our paths to never cross again. But should you happen across this somehow, I thought you should know I still treasure the long friendship that was ours. And I wanted you to know I am still writing, still putting the occasional word out into the world. Not that you influenced me or anything.